By BRUCE DENNILL
Giselle / Joburg Ballet, principals Shannon Glover and Juan Carlos Osma / Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
There’s that point at which you realise as a teen or even a middle-aged reader that the fairytales you read as a kid were, by and large, bloody terrifying. Grannies mauled by wolves; abandoned children lured into ovens by witches; young women banished to locked towers or filthy cellars at the whim of family members and all the rest – not a collective barrel of laughs.
Similarly, Giselle, usually described as “one of the greatest Romantic/classical ballets” is at its heart, a melancholic love story that descends into spectral horror and then wanders back towards mere tragedy to finish.
It’s unlikely that too many punters would be drawn to the above for an afternoon or evening at the theatre, but the beauty of the choreography, particularly in Act Two, when the corps de ballet (or in the context of this piece, the corpse de ballet – the characters they’re portraying are all dead) have the opportunity to execute a number of intricate mass movements that are wonderful to watch, allow for enjoyment beyond the macabre themes.
Act One, in which the storyline and characters are established, is a touch cluttered – no reflection on this company; it’s in the text – with nobleman Albrecht (Juan Carlos Osma) pretending to be a farmer while courting a beautiful but brittle peasant girl named Giselle (Shannon Glover), who is warned by another besotted serf, Hilarion (Jonathan Rodrigues) that her charming new suitor is not all he says he is. This plot thread is absorbing enough, but it’s impact is somewhat diluted by a number of time-filling solos in which various minor characters dance for the visiting king and queen, who are out mingling with the riff-raff.
The highlight of the act is the famous “mad scene”, which takes place after Giselle has discovered that Albrecht is already engaged to someone else and has been lying to her. Glover, who handles her role’s considerable technical aspects with great panache throughout, excels in this scene, conveying everything from sorrow to confusion and, ultimately, insanity using only her expressive face and body language. Acting is an under-appreciated part of ballet, but Glover’s efforts here help redress the balance. Osma is always a charismatic leading man, but Albrecht has much less to do in dramatic terms than Giselle.
In Act Two, the Joburg Ballet corps do some of the best ensemble work the company has put together for some time. Poor Hilarion – the bloke is in the wrong place at the wrong time twice in the piece – comes to remember Giselle at her graveside, but is forced by the Wilis – the angry ghosts of women who have died before their weddings – to dance until he dies. Again, with fairly slim pickings on the narrative side, it’s up to the dancers to fill in the gaps, and they do so brilliantly, with fantastic collective technique and carefully orchestrated movement. The final scene sees Giselle (herself now a Wili) dancing with Albrecht who, though it was his betrayal that caused her death, does seem to be genuinely enamoured of his late love and by doing so ensures that he survives the night.
It’s hardly a happy ending – the nominal bad guy survives and everyone else who matters is dead. But the strength of Giselle as a story is that everyone involved is obviously flawed and even the most extreme actions – the Wilis pushing an innocent man beyond the limits of his endurance – are understandable in the context in which they occur (the dead women have been terribly wronged themselves).
Kudos go to Joburg Ballet as a whole. Having come through a tough administrative time, assimilating a number of new, young dancers into their number and losing prima ballerina Burnise Silvius to injury for the duration of this run, the company does much more than just pull together for this production. The corps work is exceptional, and with the number of principal dancers recently swelled via deserved promotions, the immediate future looks good.